Culinary school, week five (chicken stock, gutting fish, beurre blanc and more!)

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This week flew by. It was incredibly difficult to find myself in a classroom again after an entire week of running around in the kitchen at Ô Cameleon. Adrenaline is a big part of being a chef, and I realized that while actually being in the kitchen was what wiped me out, I never actually felt that fatigue until I left it. So, classes were rough, but luckily kitchen time wasn’t.

I’ve learned enough now to know that while fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish etc. can be transformed into an infinite number of dishes, the basics remain the same. And I’m starting to get the hang of the basics. Menus that I would have described as ambitious a month ago now seem doable. Cutting a shallot into the smallest possible dice is no longer a challenge, but just part of my day. I could make pie crust in my sleep, and a beautifully thick sauce is a cake walk. Cooking is a combination of basic gestures and knowledge, and making a good dish almost always inevitably involves the same steps. this is where the chef’s own personal inspiration will play a role in how the dish turns out. Now that I’m getting the basics down, the next step will be finding my culinary signature. And that’s something I can get really excited about.

This week we made our first batch of chicken stock from beginning to end, starting with whole raw chickens that we singed, dressed and cut into 8 pieces, reserving the neck, carcass and wing tips for our stock. The first step in making stock is to blanch the carcass to get rid of any impureties. Skim off the foam, add more water and your herbs, carrots, onions and leeks, for example, and boil for about an hour, depending on the size of the bird. Filter the stock and set aside.

Now you can prepare your chicken: sauté it in butter without browning then set aside. Add your onions and sweat them for a couple of minutes before removing from heat, adding flour and whisking to make a roux. Add your stock to the roux and whisk away, letting it reduce slightly before adding the chicken and cooking it in the sauce in the oven. Once it’s cooked, simply whisk in some heavy cream and reduce the sauce to the proper consistency if neede and voilà! chicken fricassée with supreme sauce.

We also made a potage cultivateur, a soup made of carrots, potatoes, green cabbage, turnips, celery, green beans and peas. And lardons. They add the best flavor! We had to be extra careful when slicing the veggies because the soup is served chunky, not blended. Cutting into equal-sized pieces is also important for the cooking process: every carrot must be the same size or you’ll end up with some that are mushy and others that ardn’t fully cooked. Logical but tricky to put into practice!

We also got to cook with, yet again, whole, fresh fish. This time we didn’t have to filet them because we were going to grill them whole. This brought about a whole new set of obstacles, because the fish had to be cleaned and gutted. We scaled and trimmed the fins, then went in through the gills to remove the organs inside and then made a small incision in the stomach and scraped out all the guts inside. After a thorough washing, we marinated the fish in thym, rosemary, olive oil and lemon before grilling them and finishing in the oven. We also learned how to filet a cooked fish since the teenagers in the cafeteria clearly would frown upon a whole fish on their plates. It was easier than fileting a raw fish, but the fish is so delicate that it’s hard not to ruin it just by trying to plate it!

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The fish were accompanied by the most divine and fattrning sauce I’ve seen yet, the beurre blanc (literally and figuratively white butter). It’s easy to make but has to be used right away; it’ll curdle if you reheat it. The sauce is made by reducing white wine, vinegar and shallots until there’s almost no liquide left. Then guess what? You just whisk in tablespoon after tablespoon of butter, season and serve. I’m talking like one stick of butter for 1/2 cup of reduced wine! Delicious but very, very rich.

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We also tournéed some potatoes (see the first photo above), carrots and turnips to practice our technique. This just means taking a chunk of vegetable and cutting it into a perfectly oblong piece of edible artwork. Again, making sure each one is the same size is vital, otherwise you’ll have a hard time when cooking. It’s pretty difficult to do but I’m getting better as the weeks go by.

Next up was a soup of curried mussels. We cooked the mussels in the marinière fashion (white wine, shallots, parsley) and once they were fully cooked and had opened up we filtered the pan juices and started our soup. We made a roux earlier in the day and cooled it down. Apparently roux works best if the roux is cold and the liquid hot, or vice versa. We added our pan juices to the cold roux and brought it up to temperature, added the curry and heavy cream, separated the mussels from their shells and combined to make a lovely soup. I don’t even like mussels, but the sauce was amazing. Apparently if you like, you can thicken the sauce by adding more flour to your roux, and use it more as a cream filling, making phyllo dough squares or something like that. Food for though!

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Our dessert for the day was caramel-coated salambo pastries. Salambos are just cream puffs that are slightly smaller and fatter than an eclair. We whipped up the cream puff dough and made pastry cream, adding a bit of Kirsch liqueur to flavor it, then piped it into the cream puffs and dipped them in freshly made caramel and slivered almonds. Yum! I actually got to eat one in the cafeteria a couple of days later and it was very tasty. I was also really proud, and said out loud, “those are our salambos!” A girl turned to me and said, “They look really well done!” Score one for us!

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Our final day was spent cooking more fish filets (oven baked on a bed of shallots and butter with fish stock), fresh spinach (steamed, then sautéed in butter) and a rhubarb tart. After making a quick sweet pastry dough, we sautéed the rhubarb and sugar together, made a cream filling (milk, heavy cream, eggs, sugar, vanilla) and mixed it all together to make a lovely, custardy tart.

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I didn’t get a chance to take many photos this week, but I hope the ones that I did take will give you an extra glimpse into my week. I’m almost halfway done with the programme now and I can definitely see the changes starting to manifest themselves in my culinary skills. One of our teachers is out next week with an injury so we’ll be spending a day with the pastry students, so you can look forward to a lot of sweetness in the near future! Chef Louchet promised us that we’d get to do something other than pie crust, cream puffs or pastry cream, so I’m super excited!

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